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Can a 67-game tournament with only seven single-elimination games deliver for the NBA?
Answers finally start dribbling in Friday night when the league's long-discussed and hotly debated In-Season Tournament, designed to generate much-needed interest before Christmas, begins at last
The tantalizing potential of an in-season cup competition was on full display this week from two of Europe's soccer powerhouse countries for the NBA to lust after.
In Germany: FC Saarbrücken, mired two league levels below the Bundesliga as a third division club, knocked mighty Bayern Munich out of the German Pokal in an all-timer upset.
And in England: Arsenal and Manchester United were fourth-round losers in the League Cup, after Manchester City and Tottenham had been previously eliminated, meaning that four of the planet’s most recognized Premier League clubs failed to reach the quarterfinals.
The NBA's inaugural In-Season Tournament, which debuts leaguewide Friday, will have none of that in Year 1. The little guys can’t topple the big boys in the chase for what has been branded the NBA Cup because, unlike soccer cups all over the world, only the 30 teams that you already see in the NBA standings are participating.
No Saarbrückens here. For all the talk frequently peddled about how European soccer models influenced their American basketball counterparts, there are very few soccer elements to be found in the version conceived by the NBA to use at the start.
I've written about the In-Season Tournament several times already — I think this July piece still has a lot of useful info as well — but today I have new pieces to share in both video and audio form to explain what the NBA is trying to do in greater detail.
My new TV essay for Bally Sports Southwest:
And a podcast convo that goes even deeper on the matter alongside Chris Haynes of Turner Sports in the latest edition here of #thisleague UNCUT:
I think the NBA already understands, deep down, that it will eventually have to stage a tournament closer to true single elimination to generate the jolts of excitement and intrigue that it is trying to pump into its slog of a regular season by adding this second trophy for teams to chase.
That was the clear hint when the NBA recently released a slick short film — The Heist starring decorated Sopranos actor Michael Imperioli embedded here — to hype up its new tournament:
Just a few lines into the piece, Imperioli references the concept of something we've never seen before: A single-elimination event involving all 30 teams.
Only one problem: The NBA's In-Season Tournament is not a single-elimination event — not until the quarterfinals. Sixty of the 67 games in the "tournament" this season are regular-season games that will also count as games in group play.
One score, in other words, used in two places.
Whereas the play-in tournament every April quickly proved its usefulness to the NBA by keeping more teams invested in the pursuit of an eighth (and ninth or 10th) seed longer than ever before, its maiden In-Season Tournament might not take on a true tournament feel until we see four teams head to Las Vegas for the semifinals and finals from Dec. 7-9.
Further evidence that the single-elimination aspect is a truly cool (and pivotal) part of such tournaments was delivered on Friday morning, when the NBA announced that the legendary LL Cool J has collaborated with the Grammy Award-winning group The Roots to create a new version of the artist's famed song “Mama Said Knock You Out” to serve as the official anthem of the NBA's maiden In-Season Tournament.
I can't help it: I'm going to be one of those annoying sticklers who feels compelled to point out, once again, that no one will be getting directly knocked out at 60 of the 67 games that we hear the anthem.
Maybe the various gaudy court designs that circulated this week and special uniforms manufactured for tournament play and the star power of an icon like LL Cool J can create enough excitement and intrigue to offset the limitations of the format that the NBA has adopted and drown out the naysayers. I certainly do agree with those who say that there's little harm for the league in trying something new, seeing how it lands with fans who aren't nearly as curmudgeonly as me and (fingers crossed) making tweaks to this format as we go.
I just can’t help wishing, like I said in the July piece, that we were actually getting a tournament after they promised us one.
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